By Dr Stefan Meyer, CTO, Ambrosus
The problems with the modern global food supply system all start on the farm.
To keep prices low, large industrial farms often adopt cheap agricultural techniques, some of which pose health risks. Smaller farmers who want to compete are forced to adopt these methods too.
Today’s quality conscious consumers are better informed and often prepared to pay more for high quality food, and yet those farmers who do follow environmentally friendly, healthy techniques have limited means to prove the quality of their products.
However quality ingredients don’t always guarantee quality food.
Once food arrives in stores, consumers cannot be fully sure of what they are buying. Labels are meant to help here, but often do not, as a number of global food scandals have shown. Labels can also be misleading – how many consumers are aware that something can legally be labelled "organic" despite not being pesticide-free, chemical-free or GMO-free?
Even when applied in good faith, labels can’t show if an individual shipment, package or piece of food has been contaminated en route.
The good news is that it need not be this way. Recent technological developments are allowing us to boldly rethink and improve the way global food supply chains and markets operate. Two new core technologies in particular are set to drive this revolution:
New generation smart food sensors
Dramatic improvements in food sensor technology mean we now have non-invasive, non-destructive means to monitor food along its whole journey from farm to fork. Modern sensors are tamper proof and deliver their data securely, ensuring its integrity.
The advent of the blockchain allows us to create secure, tamper-proof, public databases – also known as distributed ledgers – where we can record the data from food sensors in such a way that it cannot be falsified, and then make it publicly available to anyone.
The combination of these core technologies, along with ancillary capabilities derived from them, will allow us to introduce unprecedented levels of transparency, security, and automation to the global food supply chain, resulting in a brand new, much improved food ecosystem.
In a transparent, secure, fully digital food supply chain, farmers could easily provide authenticated proof of the quality and origins of their produce to the whole network. This would make it easier for them to find quality-conscious buyers and so get a fair price for their higher quality products. It could also lead to broader-based, verifiable reputation systems for farmers or businesses that consistently deliver excellent value to consumers. That would both help those businesses as well as create new, more direct relationships between consumers and their food producers.
Thanks to this new transparency, it will be easier for quality food producers to come together in digital cooperatives independent of their location. This will improve their negotiating power with larger buyers and also, through bulk selling, allow them to offer better prices to end consumers.
In this new ecosystem, it will be easier for farmers to support each other or for governments to support small farmers, perhaps through farmers' funds that facilitate social lending. The new ecosystem should also greatly facilitate traditional forms of food supply chain insurance, making it cheaper and more readily available to a wider range of beneficiaries.
Food transport and distribution will too evolve. With access to real-time, verified food data, we can build sophisticated digital dashboards for supply chain management that are far more complete and accurate than those available today. By adding dynamic analytics and artificial intelligence, operators will be able to easily visualize their supply chains, anticipate problems and optimize efficiencies along the whole trip from farm to fork.
These advancements in technology will also lead to reduced waste, and in turn, make our world more sustainable. For example, not all food needs to be of the highest quality. A five-star restaurant might reject a delivery of meat for having too much gristle, but a pet food manufacturer would find it perfectly acceptable. In the new food ecosystem, it will be very easy for such parties to find each other and quickly negotiate deals.
Thanks to a blockchain-enabled technology known as smart contracts, we will be able introduce high levels of automation as well as direct settlement to many supply chain processes. This will make it much easier to monitor and manage the process, and reduce or eliminate lengthy disputes and costly recalls.
It will also make it much easier for parties to enter into direct agreements – for example between farmers and restaurants, or even farmers and end consumers. This will allow the creation of peer-to-peer food marketplaces that could over time radically change how we source what we eat.
This technological transformation will also give more power to consumers. Food checker apps will be able to access blockchain data to let consumers quickly verify the quality of the food they are buying. While standing in the store, an individual could simply scan a QR code to find out the full history of that particular product, with the capability to go more in-depth than was ever possible before. A food supply chain powered by blockchain could be the underpinnings of a brave new world, one healthier, more efficient, and with higher-than-ever standards for safety.
About Dr Stefan Meyer, CTO
With over 20 years of R&D experience in food analysis, ultrasound sensors, and data encryption, Dr Stefan Meyer co-founded Ambrosus in 2016.
Previously, Stefan led R&D projects at Nestlé, MHM Microtechnique and Vitargent Biotech and also sold two projects to Maersk Group and Siemens. He was the Founding Managing Director of the Integrative Food and Nutrition Center at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL).
Stefan holds a PhD in Food Science (ultrasound applications in food industry) from the University of Leeds and MSc in Geosciences from the University of Lausanne and is also a Member of the Swiss Federal Office for Agriculture.